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‘Jeopardy!’ Writer Uses USC Education to Stump Quiz Show Contestants

by Inga Kiderra

A: On March 18, 2001, this popular quiz show, hosted by Alex Trebek, featured “USC” as a category.

Q: What is “Jeopardy!”?

The Double Jeopardy! category was the last one on the board to be tackled by the show’s trio of contestants. It contained clues that alluded to the Polish Music Reference Center, Mudd Hall of Philosophy, the Renaissance Scholars Program and, of course, Tommy Trojan.

But Tommy had a slight identity problem.

To the clue: “When up and running, USC has a Web cam focused on a bronze statue of this guy, its symbol,” one contestant answered, “What is the Trojan?”

When the judges didn’t accept that answer, he guessed the “USC Trojan.”

When that, too, was rejected, another contestant buzzed: “Who is Hector?”

The “USC” category was the brainchild of “Jeopardy!” writer Steven Dorfman, a graduate of Detroit’s Wayne State University. One of Dorfman’s fellow writers, however, is a USC alumna. And though she says she didn’t influence his writing in any way, Kathy Easterling, a 1975 graduate who majored in drama, started on the show in 1986, two years after its premiere.

Answering an ad in the Hollywood Reporter, Easterling was one of 2,000 candidates. After scoring second highest on a contestant test – employees were selected on the logic that “they had to be at least as smart as the contestants” – Easterling was given the task of writing some categories.

She still remembers this first attempt. She wrote a set of questions on vampires, another on celebrity secrets and another on presidents. What may have landed her the job, Easterling believes, is digging up the fact that President Grover Cleveland had once been a hangman in Buffalo, New York.

“I had a good feeling about [the job] the minute I read the ad. I absolutely knew this was right for me,” Easterling said. “I have a knack for remembering things, obscure bits of information.”

The show’s writers meet regularly to “roundtable” the games, discussing if they are too easy/too hard or if (the big no-no) there’s more than one acceptable response to a clue. And, Easterling said, host Trebek likes “to sit and talk about the material,” too. But otherwise the writers are pretty free to write what they will.

Easterling, who has also been one of the “Jeopardy!” judges since 1990, specializes in writing crossword clues and clues on drama, literature, Shakespeare and royalty.

She attributes her specialty, in part, to her USC education, including an elective on “Tudor and Stuart England.”

“I still have some of my textbooks here in the office and use them as sources,” Easterling said. “‘The Theatre and Drama of Greece and Rome,’ by James H. Butler, who taught the history class while I was at USC, is so highlighted in pink and blue…. It’s more highlighted than not!”

Easterling gets her inspiration from “anything and everything,” including listening to the radio while driving to work and casual conversations with friends. After 15 years of writing for the show, she hasn’t lost her enthusiasm.

“There’s always new information,” she said. “And you can always find new information about historic people if you look hard enough.”

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